Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Miracle of Hebrew part 2

“For everything there is needed only one wise, clever and active man, with the initiative to devote all his energies to it, and the matter will progress, all obstacles in the way notwithstanding... In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.”  Eliezer Ben Yehuda, 1908

Eliezer Ben Yehuda
For the revival of the Hebrew language, that pioneer was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself.

It is an error to say that Hebrew was a 'dead' language. It was the language of the synagogue ritual and prayers. It was the language of the Talmudic studies. It was the language of the Torah. If in any essence it was 'dead', it was only in it's use on a daily basis for the daily and mundane commonness of life. 

As the philologist Chaim Rabin noted in 1958, “ would hardly be an exaggeration to say that at the time of Ben-Yehuda's first article in 1879, over 50 percent of all male Jews were able to understand the pentateuch, the daily prayers, etc. and some 20 percent could read a Hebrew book of average difficulty, allowing for a much higher proportion in eastern Europe, north Africa and Yemen, and a very much lower one in western countries.” 
This being the case, Eliezer's role in the revival of Hebrew as a daily language:
“Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.” ~ Cecil Roth

Born Eliezer Yitzak Perelmen on January  7, !858 Luzhky, Lithuania; he began his religious training at a young age with parental hopes that he would become a rabbi.  Later, like a lot of the scholars of his day, Eliezer studied other philosophies and joined the 'free-thinkers'. The same year that he finished his formal education, 1877, the Bulgarians were seeking independence from the Turks. This upheaval caused Eliezer to ponder the return of a people to its own nation and sovereignty. If this desire for independence was just for the Bulgarians how much more so for the ancient and much older people, the Jews.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, known for his work in Hebrew was also a fore-runner of modern Zionism. His published papers promoted the idea that the Jewish people should return to their original homeland~ Israel. In his writings he encouraged the people to reconsider national identity. After overhearing a challenge, Eliezer decided that his campaign for a national homeland and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken, daily language could be better waged from Jerusalem.
Eliezer and Dvorah

In 1881, he and his new bride, Devorah, arrived in Israel. Not long after, he was hired to teach Hebrew at a boy's school and his first son was born. He insisted that the ONLY lanuage that the child would hear would be Hebrew. Eliezer understood that if his vision was to take wings and fly, it would mostly be through affecting the next generation. 

Like all visionaries, Eliezer had his difficulties. There was much persecution by the religious community who thought that Hebrew was only a holy language and should be used only in that manner. However, there were enough people of influence who agreed with Eliezer's vision and joined forces with him to help push along the venues necessary to see it happen. It was clear to Ben-Yehuda that herein lay the very future of the revival. If children could learn Hebrew from a young enough age in school, they would become virtually unilingual in Hebrew when they grew up. In his words: “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and... become a living language” 

One event that helped push along the integration of Hebrew, was the beginning of immigration in 1881. With so many Jews coming into the Land~many intellectuals~ the need for the common language became even more evident.  These new olim learned Hebrew, passed it on to their children and helped spur the movement into a reality. On Novemeber 29, 1922 the British Mandate Authority, recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews of Palestine (Israel) Only one month later, Eliezer Ben Yehuda died but not without seeing the beginnings of the fulfillment of his dreams.

On this your birthday, January 7, 2012~ The 2 Spies salute you, Eliezer Ben Yehuda with grateful hearts for your vision and drive and sacrifice.

Ben Yehuda's Home
Memorial Museum at Hebrew University


  1. Amen! What a driven, dedicated man. His tireless, relentless pursuit to resurrect and modernize Hebrew was nothing short of miraculous. He laid a key stone into the foundation of the modern, JEWISH state in Eretz Israel! Happy Birthday indeed!


Thank you for your comments. Your post will appear soon.